2011-2012 San Jose Sharks Season Review: Antti Niemi

At this point, it's safe to say goaltender Antti Niemi has overtaken even Patrick Marleau for the title of "most divisive Shark" among the team's fanbase. It's not particularly difficult to understand why; he plays an aesthetically unpleasing style in net, largely eschewing the technically sound brand of goaltending that has found its way into most NHL creases. The combination of his poor lateral mobility, unspectacular glove hand and slouched positioning makes him more susceptible than most to shots targeted at the upper portion of the net. I wouldn't argue with any of that but what I would contend is that Niemi's critics miss the mark by either intentionally ignoring or failing to realize that Niemi's job description is really pretty simple: stop the puck. Stop it early, stop it often, stop it as much as possible. It really couldn't matter less how Niemi looks when making saves as long as he actually makes them. And, since arriving in San Jose after being signed as a free agent following his Cup run with the Blackhawks in 2010, make them he has.

Given the substantial year-to-year variance in individual goalies' PK SV% results league-wide and the varying amounts of time different teams spend killing penalties (not to mention the issues with the Sharks' penalty kill specifically that extend beyond the crease), the best way to assess goaltender talent is even-strength save percentage over as large a sample as possible. Two years isn't very large but since it's the extent of what we have to work with for Niemi's Sharks career it'll have to do. Here are the top fifteen goalies in even-strength SV% since 2010, limited to netminders with at least 2000 minutes played over that span:

Goaltender Even-Strength SV%
Tim Thomas .938
Cory Schneider .933
Roberto Luongo .932
Niklas Backstrom .931
Henrik Lundqvist .931
Pekka Rinne .931
Jonathan Quick .930
Antti Niemi .930
Mike Smith .929
Semyon Varlamov .928
Ilya Bryzgalov .928
Kari Lehtonen .927
Jaroslav Halak .927
James Reimer .927
Ryan Miller .926

Only seven goalies, all of them save for perhaps the relatively inexperienced Schneider decidedly elite, have posted a better combined EV SV% since Niemi arrived in San Jose than the Sharks goalie himself. Goalies like Carey Price, Cam Ward and Mikka Kiprusoff, widely considered by many fans and analysts as undoubtedly superior to Niemi, don't even make the cut. Keeping in mind the obvious discrepancy in sample size, another interesting tidbit is that the widely deified Evgeni Nabokov posted just a .920 EV SV% post-lockout with the Sharks. But since he accomplished that while tending goal in an athletic, technically sound manner a lot of Sharks fans still yearn for the days when he was between the pipes. By the way, throwing out impending RFA Schneider, the average cap hit of the goalies above Niemi on that list will be $5.3 million next season.

Of course, neither Niemi's 2011-12 season nor his overall tenure with the Sharks has been all sunshine and lollipops. As effective as he's been at evens, Niemi has posted even worse numbers on the penalty kill. Over the same two-year span, Niemi's PK SV% ranks 19th among the 22 goalies who have played at least 500 minutes 4v5. As mentioned during the Thomas Greiss review, there's probably more to consider there than Niemi's performance alone since there tends to be a larger standard deviation among NHL teams' overall PK SV% numbers than their respective EV SV% numbers in a given season, suggesting there's more at play than goalie talent alone. Given the data at hand, it's difficult to suss out exactly what impact the Sharks' passive PK system has on their SV% when down a man and what impact Niemi's goaltending has. Regardless, it's impossible to let Niemi completely off the hook for the disaster that has been the Sharks' penalty kill over the past two seasons. Including his shorthanded results and evaluating his performance in teal based on overall SV% knocks him down a few pegs; over the past two seasons, among the 44 goalies who have appeared in at least 50 games, Niemi drops to 15th with a .917 overall SV%.
FTF Grade: B. He was above average at evens, below average on the PK and right around league average (among starting goaltenders) overall. That likely adds up to around a C but I grant Niemi some leniency for his showing on the penalty kill due to the team's systemic issues and I firmly believe it's important to consider past performance rather than evaluate a goaltender on one season alone with the amount of variance involved in single-season goaltending results. He should never be mistaken for a top-five goalie but Niemi has given the Sharks demonstrably above-average goaltending at even-strength during his stay in San Jose (some of the best in the league in fact), thus far providing the Sharks with better goaltending than they received from former crease occupier Nabokov following the lockout. Criticism directed at his technique will always be widespread and perhaps those who beat that drum do have it right here; it's possible Niemi's just gotten lucky both seasons and is bound to regress over the remainder of his contract. Still, with the goaltending market decreasing seemingly by the day, it would probably be more difficult to replace Niemi's contributions to the team than people might expect if the muted rumors about his imminent trade to Columbus contain any inkling of truth.

How would you grade Antti Niemi's 2011-12 season?